Originally published by Americans for the Arts on ARTSBlog
Over the summer, I spent two and half months interning at a national nonprofit organization, Americans for the Arts. A complicated and multifaceted organization, Americans for the Arts’ main objectives can be oversimplified into two main functions: 1) assist local arts agencies across the nation with the tools and resources they need to succeed, and 2) advocate for the intrinsic, educational, and economic value of the arts with respect to national and local policy.
Americans for the Arts hosted eight other summer interns: two in New York City, and seven in DC. We each represented one of AFTA’s respective departments; I served as their Local Arts Advancement Intern.
My main project was to review, synthesize, and compile local arts advancement content. During this process, I acquired all kinds of new acronyms and jargon. I learned the difference between the creative sector, the creative economy, and creative industry; a Local Arts Agency (LAA), a State Arts Agency (SAA), and a Regional Arts Association (RAA) (not to mention the respective needs, job titles, and resources they require on a national level).
In practice, endeavor consisted of going through hundreds of emails the VP of Research and Policy, Randy Cohen, had accumulated in his inbox—a task that represents undoing over 20 years of assigning mail to respective outlook folders. A daunting amount of data, the complete list includes 94 categories, or 3,586 files.
My job was to identify frequently asked questions, came up with questions and answers, and synthesized all the information into something coherent and user-friendly. As the project came to fruition, I worked with the web team to publish this content online in both the FAQ section and well as attached PDFs. This information could then be available to local arts administrators everywhere, as opposed to seeking out individuals within the organization to answer specific questions.
So when Randy Cohen sent out an email inviting all the DC interns to a local pub, I immediately recognized his name as the source of my Never-Ending Arts Data. The event actually carried an official title—Arts Drinking Group, a conglomeration all of us overworked, underpaid professionals are very happy exists. At the bar, Randy introduced us: the Research Services Intern, an Australian student pursing a dual MBA and MA in Arts Management at SMU; the Animating Democracy Intern, a graduate student enrolled in Carnegie Mellon’s accelerated Masters of Arts Administration program. “You really need to get some interns with some ambition,” remarked Randy’s beer-drinking friend.
Randy was hardly the only staff member who made our acquaintance: over the weeks, we were introduced to the organization’s ten departments and their respective staff members. Each team sat us down in a sleek conference room—windows displaying the tenth floor view of downtown D.C.—to explain to us, in highly articulate language, what it is exactly they do.
“If you’re not a communicator, don’t go into development,” said Kate Gibney, Vice President of Development. From the head of the table, Kate told us about her career at the Smithsonian, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She said this casually, delivered in the same tone from which she informed us of her college major. Kate’s story was not unusual: so many of AFTA’s staff members had prestigious backgrounds and educations I came to expect it.
But at Americans for the Arts, surrounded by arts administrative professionals, this kind of answer doesn’t cut it. Instead, people ask follow-up questions like:
“Do you want to go into for-profit or non-profit? Private sector or public sector?”
“I saw on your resume you’re a writer. Have you looked into development? Communications? Marketing?”
“But who do you want to be when you get out of grad school? As in, what job title would you like to hold?”
To get some answers, I scheduled coffee dates with anyone with a caffeine addiction and a willingness to impart an hour’s worth of wisdom (these criteria basically include the entire staff). As it were, I met with team members from development, membership, and research; the COO, the CEO, and the executive assistant, to name a few. I didn’t realize how many notes I’d taken until it was time to unpack my desk, which practically contained a dissertation’s worth of legal pads.
Of all these conversations, my primary take-away was that no one—not even prestigious arts professionals I so admired—have a direct career path. Unfortunately for us Type A folk, the universe forces you to meander. One VP with decades of museum and independent curatorial experience told us that she’s still trying to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up.
The COO and CEO followed the same trend: while I was hoping for them to divulge some sort of formulaic method they’d all been safeguarding. Instead, they told me no such process exists. “If you are passionate about your work, if you are engaged and asking the right questions, there is no wrong path,” they told me. My cubicle buddy put it more forthrightly: “Stop doubting yourself. You got this.”